Manufacturing appellate jurisdiction over a discovery ruling

When I read Brescia v. Angelin, case no. B204003 (2d Dist. Mar. 17, 2009), I was reminded about how Saturday Night Live once ran one a commercial parody for a product with the advertising slogan “It’s a dessert topping! It’s a floor wax!  It’s two products in one!”

How do I make that connection? Because when I was done reading the case, I thought, “It’s a dismissal after sustaining a demurrer! It’s a discovery ruling! It’s two rulings in one!”

And so did the court of appeal, though it didn’t say it in so many words.

Brescia cross-complained against respondents for trade secret misappropriation.  Code of Civil Procedure section 2019.210 requires a trade secret plaintiff to identify the trade secret “with particularity” before commencing discovery.  Respondents moved for protective orders against discovery served by Brescia, claiming that he had not adequately identified the trade secret.  Finding the initial identification inadequate, the court gave Brescia several opportunities to make more particular designations, while the hearing on the protective order motions (which were now greater in number) were continued.  During this time, the respondents also demurred to Brescia’s cross-complaint.

Eventually, the protective order motions and demurrer (as well as a motion to strike) were heard on the same date, and this is where it gets interesting.  The court goes into great detail about the exchange among counsel and the court, but summarizes it as follows:

[T]he parties, in an attempt to expedite any appeal, stipulated that if the court determined the trade secret designation insufficient, it could use respondents’ demurrer to the cross-complaint as a procedural device to dismiss Brescia’s trade secret misappropriation claim for failure to comply with section 2019.210

That should have set off alarms in everyone’s mind, but we’ll get to that in a minute. The court found the disclosure inadequate and sustained the demurrer without leave to amend.

Brescia appealed from the resulting judgment of dismissal and, notwithstanding his stipulation in the trial court that the inadequacy of the trade secret disclosure would dispose of the case, argued that the court could not use a ruling on the trade secret disclosure as a ground for sustaining the demurrer. After recounting all the ways in which the stipulated arrangement violated normal procedural rules and effectively converted an unappealable discovery ruling into an appealable judgment, the court reminds Brescia of the doctrine of “invited error”:

Nonetheless, despite these inherent problems, Brescia stipulated to the procedure used by the court, as did respondents.  Indeed, the trial court would not have used this procedure but for Brescia’s express consent.  Brescia is in the procedural posture he sought. To the extent he now challenges that posture as improper and awkward, he effectively misled the trial court into believing the procedure was acceptable to him as a means to secure immediate appellate review of the sufficiency of his section 2019.210 designation.  Thus, he cannot contend on appeal that the termination of his action against respondents was procedurally defective.  (See Norgart v. Upjohn Co. (1999) 21 Cal.4th 383, 403 [doctrine of invited error applies where party induces error and, in doing so, misleads court].)

But Brescia actually prevails on the adequacy of his disclosure, so the court reverses, rejecting respondents’ contention that the demurrer gave an alternate ground for affirmance.

Respondents argue that the alternative grounds exist to support the court’s ruling sustaining the demurrer to the cross-complaint without leave to amend:  (1) the cross-complaint fails to state facts sufficient to plead a trade secret misappropriation claim against respondents personally, and (2) Brescia’s legal theory creates an improper prior restraint on trade.

In the unusual procedural posture of this case, we decline to address these issues.  The ruling that forms the basis for this appeal is a discovery ruling – the sufficiency of Brescia’s section 2019.210 designation.  By stipulation, the parties and the court deemed that discovery ruling to be a ground upon which the court would dispose of the cross-complaint through the procedural fiction that it formed a basis for demurrer.  We have given effect to that stipulated fiction and have addressed the merits of the section 2019.210 issue.  But we will not carry the fiction further and purport to review a ruling on a demurrer that was never truly made.  Respondents are asking us, in the first instance, to rule on their challenges to the cross-complaint and to sustain the demurrer without leave to amend.  We decline.  Respondents must first obtain a ruling on the demurrer in the trial court, which is the appropriate forum to determine in the first instance whether the demurrer states meritorious grounds, and, if so, whether leave to amend should be granted.

(Emphasis added.)

Curiously, none of the analysis talked about in this post is part of the published opinion, which is limited to the issue of the adequacy of the trade secret disclosure. The court clearly was not pleased with the stipulation, and a published decision would have announced their discouragement of such arrangements.  On the other hand, notwithstanding the court’s distaste for the arrangement, publication might have encouraged more of them.  The court did, after all, hear the appeal, and determine the merits of the underlying discovery ruling.  Other plaintiffs faced with the same unattractive alternatives to such a stipulation — waiting to appeal after final judgment or petitioning for writ relief with a greater than 90% chance of not being hard on the merits — may find the “Brescia option” attractive . . . if they learn of it.